UNDER THE BRIDGE, MEN UNDER PRESSURE
“You gonna have a revolution”: the last words of Arthur Miller’s angry “play for the screen”, echo here with an interrogative lift. But the filmscript was too revolutionary to handle for Elia Kazan and Columbia Studios in 1951: the FBI feared its portrait of a Brooklyn longshoreman, Marty Ferrera, defying crooked union bosses and racketeers. Hollywood unions threatened to pull every projectionist in America off from showing it. Kazan himself – unlike Miller – later caved in and testified to the House Un-American Activities committee. The writers’ withdrawal of the script – never staged until this adaptation by Ron Hutchinson directed with thrilling immediacy by James Dacre – was itself a small revolution.
And yes,t thrilling. Too easy to call it a ranging shot, a five-finger exercise before the masterly A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. The later, greater play focuses more closely on intimate family pain and betrayal among the longshoremen. This one homes in on labour injustice and corruption, despite honest domestic moments as Marty’s wife Terry – Susie Trayling tough, wise, fine-drawn – begs him to go easy :“I don’t wanna run no orphan asylum at home”.
It’s short – two hours including interval- and in the opening scenes I found it hard to get a grip on. It hardly mattered, because Patrick Connellans’ brooding, hazy, watery, iron-industrial set and Dacre’s skilful use of the community ensemble create such a powerful sense of a trapped tough world that you’re right there. In comradeship, anxiety and – with a spectacular accident- grief. Clarity grows as we work out that Marty – after initially walking off the job in disgust at a friend’s death caused by speeding-up of crane work – is going to defy his union chair Louis (Joe Alessi, alternately smooth and panicked by his own pressures) and decide whether to hook up wit the even more threatening mobster Rocky (Sean Murray).
Jamie Sives is a terrific Marty: alpha male, gradually harnessing his innate stubbornness to moral battle, accepting not only his own peril but that of his family and colleagues. “It’s hard to be tough alone”, though, and the other men are not welfare-cushioned, too afraid for their livelihood for serious defiance. It’s a world (with unsettling parallels to ours) which took in the world’s “ huddled masses yearning to breathe free” then kept them huddled on zero-hours work where you can arrive “five thirty in the morning, and get no work that day”.
The second half, as Marty stands for election to oust Louis and finds another kind of betrayal, is electric (one usher observed in passing that she sits at the back and ‘nobody ever moves’, which is as good a criticism as any). And although it hasn’t the heartbreaking lyrical strength of Miller’s greatest work, there are lines you don’t forget. Marty says he was heard of rats on the shore, but “No big rats – little scared human being rats, screwed outa their biscuits..killed on the ships. These is little mouses!” Hauntingly, Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes the blind black pedlar wanders through at times as a sort of chorus, commenting obliquely, telling Marty he’s got to “burn, burn! and one day explode!”.
It’s Miller’s year, with the RSC Death of a Salesman, a marvellous Young Vic’s VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE on its way to Broadway and another fine UK production lately touring. And what Dacre has done is gripping, fascinating, and timely. The final election scene even echoes, though he couldn’t have known it would, the fate of our own Left in May, and some of the reason for it….